On the eve of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Dr Edward Wilson-Lee explores the remarkable ways in which the works of England’s greatest poet-playwright are woven into the merging cultures of East Africa. In his debut book, Shakespeare in Swahililand, Wilson-Lee gives a compelling account of an era in which Shakespeare took centre stage.

Shakespeare showed no hesitation in borrowing from foreign cultures, and he based many of his own works on stories derived from the Italians and French as well as from classical Latin and Greek culture.

Edward Wilson-Lee

In 1857 the explorer Captain Richard Francis Burton set out from the East African coast to find the source of the Nile.  As his expedition struggled through unmapped bush, men and horses died from starvation and disease – or perished in raids from tribes whose land they crossed. Often hysterical from fever and fear, Burton reduced the baggage carried to ammunition, medicine and materials to trade with locals. But he clung to a few volumes of reading matter. He wrote later: “The few books – Shakespeare, Euclid – which composed my scanty library, we read together again and again.”

Burton wasn’t the only westerner to take a volume of Shakespeare into Africa. Others who did so included the legendary Henry Stanley, John Speke and Thomas Parke. In 1886 the aristocratic Walter Montague Kerr protested at the meagreness of the baggage accompanying him to the lakes of central Africa compared with that of “some expeditions to the dark interior of the continent” but added that he found space for “a small edition of Shakespeare, a Nautical Almanac, logarithmic tables, and Proctor’s Star Atlas”.

In the year that celebrates 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, Dr Edward Wilson-Lee (Faculty of English) takes us thousands of miles south of the poet and playwright’s very English birthplace. In Shakespeare in Swahililand, Wilson-Lee revisits the land of his own childhood to discover, on foot and by train and tuktuk, the often surprising ways in which Shakespeare is woven into the shifting cultures of East Africa.

While Victorian explorers took the complete works as a weighty talisman of civilisation, Wilson-Lee travels lightly.  With his own volume of Shakespeare in an old leather shooting bag, he flits between libraries, archives and institutes in a world of 100 million Swahili speakers. Along the way he meets a colourful cast of characters: painters, actors, soldiers, a teenage prostitute, intellectuals, readers, thinkers.

The earliest performance of a Shakespeare play in Africa is said to have taken place aboard a sailing ship during the playwright’s own life time. An article published early in the 19th century, reportedly based on a captain’s dairy, claims that the crew of the Dragon, a vessel sent in search of spices by the India Company, performed two Shakespeare plays in September 1607. While the ship was anchored north-west of Madagascar, its crew performed the ‘TRAGEDY OF HAMLET’.  

Supporting evidence for these early stagings is fragile. But, though fanciful, these reports do suggest an early and uncanny link between Shakespeare and East Africa. For hard facts, however, we jump to 1867 when the English missionary Edward Steere printed Swahili translations of four of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. Written in 1807, these tales were abridged, and widely popular, versions of the plays written to help young audiences grasp some of the more complex twists and turns.

Strange and wonderful things happen when Shakespeare crosses continents. Titles are misspelt (The Merchant of Venus); plots are subverted to suit political agendas; and sometimes the players don’t realise they are performing Shakespeare at all.  Wilson-Lee applauds this fluidity with glee: it echoes Shakespeare’s own pilfering of character and storyline. “Shakespeare himself showed no hesitation in borrowing from foreign cultures,” he writes, “and he based many of his own works on stories derived from the Italians and French as well as from classical Latin and Greek culture.”

Educated in mission schools, where the study of English literature stood at the centre of the syllabus, the East African leaders who sparked the region’s independence movements had an easy familiarity with Shakespeare. According to his daughter, Jomo Kenyatta, father of modern Kenya, counted his volumes of Shakespeare among his favourite books and often recited from them. In 1948 Appollo Milton Obote, later to become Uganda’s first president, played the title role in Julius Caesar in a performance at Makerere University in Kampala.

The Indian diaspora was just as deeply touched by Shakespeare. Such was the fervour with which Shakespeare was embraced by the immigrant community, who were at the turn of the 20th century building the East African railways, and much more, that between in the 18 months from February 1915, there were no fewer than 15 Hindustani productions of Shakespeare plays in Kenya – more than in London’s West End during the same period.

When independence from colonialism came, enthusiasm for Shakespeare did not wane. As caretaker and then President of Tanganyika (Tanzania), Julius Nyerere spent his days forming a new nation and his evenings working on a translation of Julius Caesar. The puzzle of Nyerere’s choice of play lies, Wilson-Lee suggests, lies in its concern with the consequences of past upheavals, something Nyerere knew all about. He is quoted from an interview: “When hunting there is no problem… Problems start when the animal had died, that’s when the fighting starts.”

Criss-crossing East Africa, Wilson-Lee is often frustrated in his quest for material evidence of a once-thriving tradition of Shakespearean theatre. Of burgeoning colonial Mombasa, he writes: “As is so often the case, in the rush to record what seemed important at the time, much of what must have given the fledgling city its flavour was simply treated as unimportant and ephemeral, leaving future ages with a somewhat sterile version of the lives lived by these early settlers.”

With his own boyhood, “in a jumble of places filled with things from elsewhere”, Wilson-Lee has no such problem. And it’s his experience as a child growing up in Kenya, some two decades after its independence, that makes Shakespeare in Swahililand so compelling. Born to conservationist parents, he was brought up in the Nairobi suburb of Karen, a place that takes its name from Karen Blixen, author of best-selling Out of Africa. She was a huge fan of Shakespeare.

At home in Karen during the school holidays, Wilson-Lee unlocks the door to a dusty storeroom. Inside is a mishmash of belongings left by previous occupants of the house: zebra skins, animal skulls, tribal shields and masks, crested brass buttons long separated from their uniforms, and bell pulls that would once have summoned servants. He delights in this invitation to the world of make-believe. Only later, as an adult and a scholar, is he able to understand just how charged with meaning these items are.

Wilson-Lee’s book is more than travelogue-cum-memoir. Unique in its subject matter, and the way it blends history, politics and literature, his writing is rooted in Shakespearean scholarship.  With his guidance, we see the African experiences of colonialism and independence – the relationship, for example, between master and servant, the lettered and unlettered – through Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. These universal themes of power and inheritance, love and loss, clashes between old worlds and new, are, after all, what make Shakespeare resonate on a world stage.

Shakespeare in Swahililand is imbued with a sense of time running out. It is Wilson-Lee’s mission to capture, before it is too late, the vestiges of an era in which Shakespeare was performed by pupils in East Africa’s elite fee-paying schools, by students in the gleaming new university of Makerere in Uganda, and by Indian railway workers in corrugated iron sheds. Wilson-Lee argues, however, that this sense of the elusive, of knowledge just beyond our grasp, is central to the power of Shakespeare’s own poetic explorations.

Shakespeare in Swahiland by Edward Wilson-Lee is published by William Collins (2016)


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